The Cold War, 1976. Retired agent John Dashwood is persuaded to supervise one last mission. However everyone at Ghost Station seems to have something to hide – including his colleagues, Rick Wentworth and Harry Tilney, and his enigmatic boss. When Dashwood sends Rick and Harry into a dangerous situation, the boundaries between friend and enemy blur and he’s left isolated, wondering who to trust.
"Rick, tell me what you know."
"Not much. A missing American in Germany, that's all we've been told."
"Well, in that case, picture the scene. A road a short distance inside the border with East Germany; Colonel Joseph Zebulon, in uniform, is being driven from A to B in a British staff car in broad daylight, unescorted. Couple of hours later the car's sitting empty at the side of the road, no sign of a struggle, no fingerprints that can't be identified and eliminated. For no apparent reason the car stopped, the colonel and his driver - " Dashwood handed them pictures of the two men " - just seem to have got out and vanished. Comments?"
"Armed roadblock?" asked Harry Tilney.
"No." Wentworth's response was impatient. "The driver would have been trained to keep going. Presumably they had bullet-proof glass?"READ MORE
"The best," returned Dashwood. "There's no sign of a shot being fired, no damage to the car or anything else in the vicinity."
"The driver was in on it," said Bertram. "Must have been."
"We'll get to him in a minute. Anything else?"
Wentworth pursed his lips. "What time of day did it happen?"
"Early afternoon. Returning from lunch with the local British commander."
"Why was he unescorted so close to the border?"
"Precisely what I've been asking." Dashwood flipped the file until he came to a page thickly covered with heavy black type. "Joseph Zebulon, colonel in the US Army - on their Strategic Staff until about six weeks ago, when there was a fire at a research facility and he was suspected of having started it."
"So he's a nutter?" queried Tilney.
"Possibly. Personal details - he's forty-one, single, from Portland, Oregon. Parents dead, married sister still lives there, no other relatives."
"Girlfriends?" Tilney was looking for anything to make the vanished Zebulon seem halfway human. "Boyfriends?"
"Neither - although the latter considerably more likely, according to his file."
"So what does he do for fun?" Bertram asked, uncomprehending.
"Gets himself kidnapped by East Germans, apparently. His area of specialisation is missiles, propulsion of. Details aren't in the file." Dashwood sounded disappointed.
"Standard issue, West Essex Regiment; they're in the area working-up for the Summer Exercise. Ogden, Stephen Ronald, Corporal - inevitably known as 'Stan'. Twenty-eight years old, married, one son, wife and child in a quarter at Bulford; she hasn't been informed of his disappearance yet. Nothing unusual on his record."
"What do you reckon, boss?" Tilney was inspecting his right thumbnail as if expecting to find the solution printed there.
"Looks like a defection, doesn't it? If Zebulon was starting fires, maybe he intended to go over; it's not as if he had any close ties in the States any more, is it? But then, how do we account for the driver? They'd never set eyes on one another before yesterday, so it's unlikely they planned it between them. The question is, did Ogden go willingly or was he kidnapped - and is he still alive and if so what can we do about getting him back? I'm aware that's four questions," Dashwood added wryly. "What I'm trying to say is, Ogden's our priority."
"The driver. The Americans will be launching their own investigation to find their man - I'll clarify the details before you leave, if I can - but for now I want you to concentrate on Ogden. He may be only a driver, but he's a member of the British Armed Forces believed kidnapped by an enemy power and we need to do everything we can to get him back. We're making diplomatic overtures, of course, but the circumstances are unusual enough to require a couple of experienced operatives available in the area. So I'm going to task you independently of any other initiative. Rick, Harry, you're off to Frankfurt on the first available flight in the morning - Desk Officer Northern Europe will arrange the booking. That's the uh ... ?"
"The 08.20 flight," supplied Tilney without a pause.
"Of course. Let me know if there are any problems with your arrangements. Tom, I intend to hold you back to assist at this end; Harry, you're on immediate recall until absolutely the last moment. Understood?"
Dashwood glanced across and found Bertram, too, acknowledging orders. "Rick - stay behind for a word. Thank you, Harry, and good luck. Tom - if there's no work you should be doing at the moment, bugger off to bed and I'll see you in the morning."
"Yes, sir. Buggering off now, sir." Bertram sketched a comical Benny Hill-type salute and retreated rapidly.
Dashwood waited until the younger men had left the room, then rounded the desk again and broke out the cigarettes he had found in the drawer.
"You do realise those are mine?" Wentworth asked wryly.
"They were; I've confiscated them." Dashwood offered him a light, then lit his own cigarette and blew smoke towards a ceiling that apparently received such treatment often. When he lowered his eyes he found Wentworth watching him.
"Rick, this is supposed to be your job. Grandison wants you for director. He told me so himself."
"He's told me, too, but he doesn't seem able to get it through Committee."
"I have an idea this may be his last throw of the dice," said Dashwood. "If the operation goes well, you'll get all the credit and probably the promotion too; if it goes badly, I'll be the one who takes the blame."
Wentworth nodded. "A bit obvious, isn't it?"
"I don't know. Too bloody obvious, perhaps, but it's a win-win situation for Grandison whichever way you look at it. Anyway I intend to assume, until I discover otherwise, that the situation in Germany is exactly as we've been told - only for God's sake check and double-check everything, you'll be a long way from home. Be extremely vigilant."
It hardly needed saying. For eighteen months, while Dashwood had been SO1 and Wentworth SO2, they had worked together on any number of sensitive assignments and a sort of telepathy had evolved between them. The same, Dashwood supposed, that Wentworth and Tilney now enjoyed, and that Tilney and Bertram were beginning to develop. It was a vital attribute for the work they did; agents unable to communicate with one another on a sub-textual level were effectively blind and deaf to one another's needs. That was probably why so many of their marriages failed, now that he came to think about it. They expected their spouses to develop instincts similar to those of their partners, and the spouses were rarely interested enough to make the effort. That, he supposed, together with the fact that agents had to be undiscriminating about their sexuality. It was good to know, though, despite the amount of time they had been apart, that a morsel of his connection to Rick Wentworth still remained.
"I want you to understand I'm not taking over. This is your job; I'm only here to smooth the path for you."
Wentworth's head tilted as he regarded him carefully. "Who is Zebulon?" he asked, as though what had gone before was utterly irrelevant.
"At the moment, I have no idea - but I doubt he's what he's supposed to be. Bait, perhaps, intended to trap them into over-reaching."
"Them? Which 'them' did you have in mind?"
"That's what you and Harry are going to have to find out."
Wentworth shrugged. "Is it true you were getting a blow-job when Tom came to collect you?"
"Absolutely. The boy had the most incredibly talented mouth. Shame I never got to try the other end."
"So you think you were set up, do you?"
"Almost certainly. I'll have to look into that while you're away. Boy's got a file, though."
Wentworth's eyebrows climbed. "What are we getting into here, John?"
"Nothing we can't get out of, I feel sure." But Dashwood didn't sound entirely convinced.COLLAPSE
Rainbow Awards Honourable Mention (2012)
Length: 65,000 words/236 pages